Discourses of contemporaneity in Australian dance have long remained in the chokehold of White dance-making.
Too often, dancers and choreographers from spaces of alterity have wore tired negotiating and renegotiating their practices in relationship to the Eurocentric imaginary.
Indian-Australian dancer-choreographer Raghav Handa steps into this context from a radically different entry point. Having his foundational training at NAISDA in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance informed by First Nations cultures and Eldership, Raghav also has some training in Kathak and has performed widely with leading choreographers Vicki Van Hout, Martin Del Amo, Marilyn Miller, Sue Healey and Danielle Micich to name just a few.
I have seen and relished Raghav’s vocabulary in others artistic visions including most recently in Double Delicious by Darren Yap and Annette Shun Wah, and Live Action Replay by Sue Healey.
Raghav also recently choreographed a work on the ensemble dancers of Sydney Dance Company that explored the re-appropriation of the Nazi Swastika through his personal lineage and lived experience of the symbol in his sacral, spiritual and familial history.
But this was the first time I was watching Raghav perform in Raghav’s own work – and let me tell you, he shone like the sun.
TWO invites audiences into a relational space starting with a rehearsal context that unpacks the intimate relationship between the musician and the dancer. As the duo set up in the space, Raghav’s comedic timing is spot on as he pokes fun at the heirarchies entrenched in the trite Guru-Sishya tradition and draws attention to the labour of independent practice.
Performed with renowned Tabla player and percussionist Shri Maharshi Raval, Raghav reveals the complexity of polyrhythms intrinsic to Indian classical music as their rehearsal process unfolds.
Raghav grapples with the polyrhythms through the lyrical fluidity of his training with isolated flexions rather than the typically accompanying stepping patterns – struggling to transition on the 0.5 or 0.75 beat cycles so he lands in tandem with the music at the end of a phrase. Vicki’s lineage is transmitted through Raghav’s body crystal clearly in this segment, and it is a joy to behold.
As the interplay between the music and dance unfold in an improvisatory framework of sawaal-jawaab (question and answer), Raghav invites you to bear witness to mastery of the instrument in an embodied ode to Eldership.
The work then casually starts to evidence the labour behind the ‘bump in’, as the duo set up for the performance. Speaking to light as a deeply perspectival construct, Raghav continuously brings our attention back to the means of production, inflecting the simple set with regard for every element in his performance environment.
In breaking the fourth wall, Raghav shares the origin story of his friendship with Maharshi: How they met 13 years ago at a community function in Darling Harbour where Marashi was entertaining the crowd with his virtuosity and Raghav was the Bollywood ‘flavour’.
He traces this intergenerational friendship in sharing rare moments of intimacy and tenderness between two brown men – something fleetingly gorgeous and rarely seen in Indian popular culture. Raghav and Maharshi play around the frame dancing delightfully to tunes of nostalgia and delicately refuting the binaries of high-brow/low-brow art forms within the invisible hierarchies of cultural practices.
At this point, Maharshi announces that he has to leave for a few minutes to move his car, and says he’ll be right back.
When Marashi ducks out, Raghav explains how Maharshi works a day job as an accountant and rushes to gigs in the evening, highlighting the marginalisation of artistic practices and communities that are subaltern in Australia and drawing attention to the everyday migrant struggle.
Taking me completely by surprise, Raghav then breaks into a Bollywood item number, gyrating his hips and queering the typically gendered performance moves by infusing the movements with his subjectivity. Sensing these fertile grounds as rife for contestation, Raghav is always playful but never irreverent.
As Maharshi re-enters the space, Raghav is invited by Maharshi to lift the instrument, hold its weight, feel its textures, understand its materiality. In this reimagination, Raghav shifts from attuning his body to the instrument to seek the being and becoming of the Tabla – the Tablaness of the Tabla, if you will.
Here, Raghav’s choreographic signature is unmissable and he dynamises time, space, volume and energetic fields as he allows himself to be engulfed by the Tabla. Bearing a haunting resonance to Tina Havelock Stevens and Ivey Wawn’s collaboration Thank you for holding at Carriageworks recently, the closing is a poignant moment of collectively experiencing liveness after a year of dearth.
TWO is as much a celebration of culture as it is a clap back to dogma and Raghav’s artistic expression is an aesthetic of possibility of what contemporary Australian dance can be if it embraces its plurality.
With dramaturgy by Julie-Anne Long, design by Justine Shih Pearson and Lighting by Karen Norris, TWO is supported by a solid creative team with finishing touches by powerhouse producers Performing Lines and was presented by FORM Dance at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta.